You have no doubt heard me talk about the way American Jews often mistranslate the word "mitzvah" as "good deed" when in fact it really means "commandment." Traditional Judaism is a religion of obligation. The ten commandments are ten commandments not ten suggestions. Whether we follow them or not is a different matter, but in general the Torah phrases itself in “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not,” not “if you feel like it.”
The beginning of this week’s Parasha is most unusual in that regard. Last week we read the special Maftir for Shabbat Shekalim about the half-shekel temple tax which was due from every individual before Pesach. The reading was quite clear -- the rich were not to give more, nor the poor to give less. Every individual was to give precisely one half-shekel. But this week we read that the offerings for the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, had to be voluntary. “You shall accept gifts from every person whose heart so moves him.”
Then a little bit later the Torah says: “v’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham.” “They shall build me a tabernacle that I may dwell among them. “ If you know Hebrew, the phrase is a little bit odd. One would expect the text to say “ v'shachanti b’tocho” – "they shall build me a tabernacle that I may dwell in it.”
The point is that God does not need a house. God dwells everywhere – the building of the Tabernacle is not necessary so that God can have someplace to live. The building of the Tabernacle is a concrete gesture of love for God so that God dwells among the people. This is why it has to be voluntary.
Other ancient peoples really did believe that their god lived in the sanctuaries that they built for them. But our God dwells everywhere and has no need of a specific place to live -- although sometimes we might wish that God would just stay in the sanctuary and leave us free to run things elsewhere as we see fit.
What is the significance of the sanctuaries we build today? What role do they play in our lives, as individuals and as a community?